In my opinion, clothes are what we wear to keep ourselves warm and protected from the elements. Style, however, has social foundations. Style has to do with consensus – trends and aesthetics that have been agreed upon by multiple people – and with etiquette, relationships, and perceptions. Even those who have style that is as far as possible from the accepted norms have it, at least in part, because their peers acknowledge it. You don’t need style to move through human society, you just need clothes. But the people who are actively interested in style and in being stylish will always be fascinated by rules, flattery, trends, and techniques of building outfits. Those things tap the social aspects of style.
Style and clothes interact through the individual wearer. For one thing, clothing will fit each individual body differently and therefore look different in action. For another, most clothing requires other clothing for a complete outfit, and adding shoes, accessories, layers and other nods to active “styling” finishes the look. Individual people will style their clothing in different ways.
And then there’s that alchemy that happens when certain people wear certain clothes … and doesn’t happen in other cases.
That last is something I’ve been mulling for ages. Since middle school, really. At that age, I realized that having and wearing certain clothes helped make certain girls seem or be “cool.” I didn’t have the money or the leverage with my parents to get all of the fancy brand-name garments I desired, but I got a few. And yet when I wore them? Nothing. Not only did they fail to affect my social status or overall cool factor, they didn’t look the same on me as they did on my peers. No alchemy.
Actually, this still confounds me at times. Although proportions, age, size, and certain other factors of physicality can definitely play in, sometimes they are irrelevant. Why is it that one woman can wear a emerald green silk romper and look effortlessly chic, yet another woman of similar age and build can put on the same garment and somehow look less chic? The observer’s impressions and opinions will be impacted by personal taste, of course, but there is often something ephemeral at play, too. This is je ne sais quoi territory. Certain clothes on certain women work magnificently. Put those clothes on other women and the looks just aren’t as successful. If I had any scientific way of studying this, I’d seriously consider it as a side project.
In my own case, the clothes that don’t work on me are the ones that teach me the most. And not in a scolding, not cool enough, not thin enough, not sexy enough way. (Thankfully, I’m beyond that. On most days, at least.) And I can say with confidence that I no longer view women who can “pull off” styles that I dislike on myself as somehow superior, or members of some elite, secret club. I acknowledge the alchemy factor, but also engage some open-minded contemplation and experimentation. The clothes that I see working on others but that fail on me force me to examine my own clothing/style interplay. I ask myself, “What are the defining traits of this piece, and how do they interact with the defining traits of my own style choices?” I examine fit issues and there are definitely items that simply don’t align with my own figure-flattery priorities, but many of the items in question appealed to me in the first place because I saw them on women with figures similar to my own. So I look at how others have successfully styled these items and compare their choices to mine – accessories, shoes, tucking, belting, jewelry, hair, layers, color and texture variations, and more. Sometimes executing a few styling tweaks does the trick, sometimes not. But examining the differences is a fascinating exercise and helps me make better guesses at which new styles might hit that marvelous alchemical note for me in the future.
If you’ve had similar experiences, I would gently encourage you to jettison as much judgment as you can. So, that dress looks phenomenal on her and not-quite-right on you? That is not a reflection on your value, beauty, or goodness. Nor hers. There are items in your closet that, when you see yourself wearing them, make you want to French kiss the mirror … and those items might look a mess on her. Such is the way of style alchemy. So play with accessorization and styling and use these instances as a reason to give some thought to your own style and clothing choices. Don’t decide that alchemy or lack thereof is a judgmental reflection on you or anyone else. Just like some human relationships, some garment/style/body relationships just weren’t meant to be. Others? Destined for a lifetime of perfect chemistry.